For better or worse, Tupac Shakur helped to define the gangsta rap genre. An articulate lyricist with the ability to paint vivid and graphic scenes of underground criminal life, he did for gang culture what Mario Puzo did for the Mafia—he presented it to the world in a very palpable, very commercial, and very appealing way. Yet did this really represent who Tupac was? All Eyez On Me: The Real Story is a compelling documentary appearing on Reelz this Sunday evening (9 PM EST/6 PST), uses the Benny Boom 2017 biopic of the same name as a basis to suggest that Tupac Shakur the world came to know and love was a very different person–someone very much unlike the persona that would eventually claim his life.
Shakur was born in 1971 to Black Panther and civil rights activist Afeni Shakur, and grew up in the throes of revolutionary thought, underground activism, political violence, and government intimidation. Yet Shakur’s mother worked to keep him focused, raising him by herself and encouraging his budding artistic talents, and it is on this that this documentary examines. Physically small and quiet, Shakur gravitates towards drama as a means of expressing himself, and he developed a deep love of the works of Shakespeare. When he and his mother moved to Baltimore, he was enrolled in the prestigious Baltimore School of Arts, and he quickly became a rising star in the drama department.
Unfortunately, in his senior year, his mother decides to move to California as a means to escape her drug problem. When he arrived there, though, not only did his mother’s drug habit get worse, Tupac starts to explore the gangster scene and the drug scene as well. He also starts to pursue a music career, first as a rapper in the Digital Underground collective, then as a solo act. Donald Hicken, his former mentor at the Baltimore School Of Arts, weighs in and suggests that all of this was a part of an ongoing stage persona, that the “real” Tupac was not the thug kingpin the media and the entertainment industry kept hyping.
What happens next is indeed worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy. As his star rises—both as a rapper and as an actor—his influence in the black community grows, and so too does the violence that comes with what he terms “thug life.” Involved in shooting two off-duty police officers, accused and arrested for rape, getting shot in the studio, all the while his star only ascends higher. Incarceration for the rape accusation finds him reevaluating his life, but he signs a deal with the devil by signing to Death Row, led by the notorious Suge Knight. Upon his release, he starts to consider leaving the lifestyle behind and focusing on being a more positive role model—only to be shot in a still-unsolved drive-by shooting in Las Vegas after leaving a Mike Tyson boxing match on September 7, 1996. He would die six days later at the young age of 25.
So, just who was Tupac Shakur? All Eyez On Me: The Real Story paints him as a budding thespian and a young man trapped and eventually smothered by his public persona. Yet the other stuff about him—the bad stuff, the drug and violence stuff—that’s equally as important in the overall history of one of rap’s biggest innovators. While All Eyez On Me: The Real Story might be a tad idealistic in its hypothesis, the points it raises are definitely worth noting.